Whilst the eyes of the soccer world would have been on the World Cup qualifying games in this international break, Tito Vilanova was undoubtedly thinking of his side’s opening five games in this club season. With the resumption of La Liga looming, here at totalBarça we shall read into El Mister’s mind, gauge how his Barcelona team is shaping up and anticipate what we might see tactically from now through to the last game before the next international break – El Gran Clásico at the Camp Nou.
They say a sign of a championship winning team is one that wins when not entirely playing well. Could that apply to Barcelona thus far? Aside from the Real Sociedad opener, the away game in Pamplona and the last home match against Valencia were not convincing, yet the job was done and Barcelona sit top of the table; nine points out of nine. What makes it even better is that Real Madrid failed to beat Valencia at home on the opening day, and fell to Getafe in their next game. And this weekend, Tito takes his boys to Getafe and it will be fascinating to see what kind of team he puts out, especially when the FIFA virus is positioned to strike.
The fascination lies within Tito’s imagination based on the current form of certain players. In the defensive third, Victor Valdes made up for his error at the end of the first Supercopa game by making a plethora of saves in the second leg. Gerard Pique looks like he will be able to carry on his Euro 2012 form and Adriano, after his red card against Madrid, responded in the best possible way by scoring a gem against Valencia, and should continue at left back now that Jordi Alba has tonsillitis. Tito has seemingly completely scrapped the idea of playing three at the back, and really he has cover for every position in a back four, especially if you add the fact that Song can play at the back if necessary and Abidal should return before the end of the year.
However, the midfield is an area in which Vilanova can make several tactical tweaks, should he feel that way inclined. Osasuna’s goal against Barca and Valencia’s attacking came from wide positions and this is due to other teams figuring out that if they attack down the sides, there is less chance of Sergio Busquets covering across, especially if the attacking full backs have pushed on. Busquets has even been asked to push up slightly more than usual and press higher up the pitch meaning that the gap in front of the defence has increased. Could we see the introduction of Busquets and Song in that central midfield area? It would mean more protection for the defence, and it would mean even more license to get forward for the full backs – somewhat similar to Del Bosque’s Spain.
Quality of possession is the name of the game for any Barcelona team, and immediately those who hold the principles of the club close to heart will be screaming out for Xavi to be included in that central midfield, especially if it’s a two. Xavi’s passing ability and his influence on Thiago Alcantara to have the same style of game means that the recycling and retention of the ball will always be incorporated into the side. For Spain, Xavi plays ahead of Busquets and Xabi Alonso, but with Xavi seemingly unable to play 60 matches a season anymore, there’s no harm in Vilanova possibly looking at other scenarios. Xavi’s free kick against Saudi Arabia and his nutmeg on Valencia’s Mexican international Guardado show that he still has plenty to offer.
In the attacking wide positions, the absence of a central striker always allows players in these positions to cut inside and head towards goal. So far this season, Pedro has indeed picked up where he left off in the Copa del Rey final last season, scoring against Real Madrid with some trademark movement off the ball and scoring a couple for Spain last week – all in all, he’s looking a lively threat once more. Iniesta has often taken up the role on the left, cutting inside into a deeper midfield position in order to create, although now he looks set to spend two weeks recovering from a muscle injury. Barcelona has had Ronaldinho and Henry in the past for the wide left attacker role. If Pedro starts on the right, can Vilanova trust Sanchez to keep possession of the ball in that area of the pitch, let alone score goals? His form for club and country suggest not. This is where David Villa surely must start to show that he’s somewhat close to full fitness. It would be perfect to see Adriano overlapping on that left flank, taking away the full back to give David Villa space to strike on goal once more. He has scored for Barcelona, and he has now scored for Spain, albeit from the penalty spot, and Tito knows his clinical finishing touch is requisite. Renowned Spanish football expert, Graham Hunter, said on talkSPORT this weekend after Spain had beaten Saudi Arabia:
“I think the emerging story is David Villa…[it has to be admired] the way that Villa has, over the years, proven himself to be pound-for-pound a superb footballer, not just a goalscorer; he is Spain’s all time record goalscorer…and he’s fought his way back in. He’s found it difficult to get up to the pace; it’s been a much longer injury absence than was predicted and to get up to the pace at Barcelona and to squeeze the players out there has been difficult; but he got a goal for Spain on Friday. Del Bosque took him with the squad to give him extra playing time and he got this goal, and there’s been an outpouring of delight for a really popular man, a really popular footballer, and it’s just one of those uplifting stories to see someone taking on adversity, aged 30, and then fighting his way back and how he contributes for Spain and Barcelona in the coming weeks will be fascinating”.
If Vilanova does look to make subtle tactical changes from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 and play Xavi or Thiago as part of the two, the two remaining positions that are yet to be talked about are the man behind the striker and the striker himself. Of course, Messi will be the deep lying forward and he will look to drop back in front of the midfield two and help possess, but the other position is very intriguing. If the opposition dares to push up, it may be worth employing Alexis Sanchez as the central striker so he can use his pace to get in behind, similar to the last fifteen minutes against Osasuna. However, we all know that defences mostly like to drop deep and deny Barcelona any space in behind. If Messi drops deep, Cesc Fabregas is the man to make clever runs into any gaps left at all. This time last year, his confidence was sky high and he finished so many chances created in this fashion. The misses against Chelsea and recently against Valencia have made some question whether Cesc has it in him or not to regain this confidence, but a switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 means that Cesc, Xavi, Messi and Iniesta can all play together.
To touch further upon the issue of Cesc’s confidence, he gained this at Arsenal week in week out by linking with a target man, and using the space very well in between the midfield and forward lines. On 15th September 2007, Cesc was orchestrating a 3-1 win for Arsenal against north London rivals, Tottenham, by linking with the central striker twice and scoring himself.
Earlier this week, he provided the assist for Soldado, the central striker, to score the winner against Georgia. Does Vilanova believe that Cesc requires a target man in front of him in order to thrive? Possibly; if he continues to use Cesc to deputise for Xavi in a deep lying playmaker role. If he had scored those chances againstValencia last week, we would be rejoicing like when he scored the third at the Bernabeu in December. The Cesc and Messi partnership is one that must be looked into by Vilanova as the best is yet to arrive.
In conclusion, in terms of progression under Vilanova, we can only hope that the mistakes from Pique, Mascherano and Valdes are out of their systems now and that Pedro can continue his run of fine finishing form. Villa’s re-emergence may be necessary now that Iniesta has picked up an injury, and perhaps a switch to a 4-2-3-1 could see a dramatic improvement in the transition from potential to ability for both Fabregas and Sanchez. On 15th September 2012, 5 years on from his magnificent performance against Spurs, can Cesc find a role for himself in Vilanova’s side? To Getafe and beyond!
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